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Doctoral student in chemistry is blazing a trail for herself and others

 

Lindsay Davis didn’t ask to become a trailblazer, but since the route to achieving her dreams demanded it, she took on the task willingly.

Davis is a doctoral student in chemistry at The University of Texas at Arlington. She’s also an African-American. Women in general have traditionally faced numerous barriers to attaining science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees. Women from underrepresented backgrounds face even greater obstacles, one of the most important being a scarcity of role models.

Studies show that one of the main reasons that few women of color choose to study STEM in college and go on to work in STEM fields is that they don’t see many women like themselves in STEM education. Having role models who share their racial identity is important to achieving a sense of belonging for women of color college students.

Davis feels fortunate to have had strong role models in her academic career, and she has gone out of her way to be one herself for her younger peers. She puts in the work when it comes to mentoring students and feels that being an inspiration to other young women is her way to pay it forward for the help and guidance she has received along the way.

“Being a trailblazer as a black woman in STEM means that I am defying odds, overcoming obstacles and changing the trajectory of my life and the others surrounding me,” Davis said. “I have accepted the challenges before me and will continue to tackle them, despite my fears.”

All her hard work is paying off in a big way. In August, she will receive her Ph.D. in chemistry, and it is believed she will become the first African-American to earn that degree from UTA (the Ph.D. program in chemistry began in 1993).

“There is no record at UTA that shows the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry has graduated any African-American Ph.D.’s previously,” said Kayunta Johnson-Winters, associate professor and Davis’ doctoral advisor. “Lindsay will likely be the first to receive this hard-earned honor. Knowing her story and understanding the barriers that underrepresented groups in STEM must overcome, it will be my most enthusiastic honor to hood her and take in that great moment in the history of our department.”

Davis credits her ability to succeed to the confidence she gained from the mentors she has had, first as an undergraduate at Langston University, a historically black college in Langston, Oklahoma, and then at UTA.

“Dr. Johnson-Winters has been instrumental throughout this whole process. She has given me the time and space to grow, which is very much appreciated,” Davis said. “There are so many things that I have learned from her that I will take with me. I’ve learned how to be intentional, strategic, and resilient. She is a true champion and advocate for all students, especially those who are historically underrepresented. Her existence has constantly reminded me that black women do have a space in academia and in all STEM fields.” 

Davis has been proactive in reaching out to help others, particularly women and underrepresented students. She has mentored four graduate students, 12 undergraduate students and two high school students during her academic career. Two of her undergraduate mentees are now in medical school, one of whom is a black female; another is in pharmacy school and another, Charlene Mandimutsira, has been accepted into the Ph.D. pharmaceuticals program in the College of Pharmacy at UT Austin.

Mandimutsira says that Davis has been a great mentor and stellar role model.

“I would not be as confident in my ability to think critically and to conduct research in the lab had it not been for Ms. Davis,” Mandimutsira said. “As my mentor, she has always pushed me to question everything and to always be inquisitive. Without her, I would not have been able to acquire numerous paid research opportunities with things like the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and the McNair Scholars program. That is all thanks to the research skills I learned from her.”

Davis is also involved with the BRDGE (Building Relationships to Diversify Graduate Education) Alliance, a national organization which seeks to develop undergraduate students at historically black colleges and universities by creating relationships with black graduate students at research institutions. The goal is to improve diversity in STEM by bridging the gap between underrepresented groups and the STEM community.

“Mentoring has been my favorite part of graduate school,” she said. “Mentoring is my way of connecting with others by breaking down barriers and investing in the futures of those around me. Investing time in someone’s future is my way of returning the favor to those who have helped me to navigate my journey.”

Johnson-Winters, who as an African American knows all too well the struggles that women of color face in STEM education, says that Davis has persevered through hard work and sheer willpower.

“When Lindsay came to UTA, she came as a first-generation STEM graduate student who is also African-American,” Johnson-Winters said. “As a first-generation student, it can be difficult to navigate the graduate experience when you have no frame of reference. Therefore, it’s very important to have someone in your corner to invest, teach and mentor you in many vital areas from coursework to research talks, proposal defenses, career development, time management and on occasion to step in and help navigate difficult situations. When Lindsay joined the department in the Fall of 2015 and my research group the following semester, she needed all of these things.

“I am so proud of the progress that she has made both personally and professionally. Most of all, she has taken all her experiences and uses them to mentor both graduate and undergraduate underrepresented students. She is very welcoming of any student who joins my research group and is quite kind and giving in terms of her time, training and knowledge. Lindsay’s story is so important because she is a trailblazer and such an encouragement to students who want to accomplish similar goals.”

Another of Davis’ mentors is Minerva Cordero, College of Science senior associate dean for research and graduate studies, whom Davis credits as an important part of her success at UTA. Cordero is a longtime advocate for providing opportunities for women in STEM, particularly women of color.

“Lindsay is an example of determination and perseverance and serves as a great role model for all our undergraduate students,” Cordero said. “But in particular, I am thrilled that she is serving as an amazing role model for other women in chemistry for whom it is critical to see women that look like them achieve the success that Lindsay is achieving.

“Very soon Lindsay will be one of the very few women Ph.D.’s in chemistry and her contributions to the field will serve as a motivation for many other young women. I firmly believe that ‘If you can see it, then you can be it.’ For the many young women out there, especially young women and girls of color, Lindsay’s success will inspire their own success.”

Davis also serves as president of the College of Science Black Graduate Students Association (COSBGSA), a group she and Johnson-Winters created in 2019, when it won a UTA award for New Graduate Student Organization of the Year. She has also been public relations officer for the Chemistry Graduate Student Association. She says leadership is something that has always come naturally for her.

“Each leadership role comes with different demands, especially being elected as the president of the BGSA,” she said. “This organization helped me grow so much professionally. This opportunity taught me how to hone in on my soft skills. I’ve had to be transparent, resilient, resourceful and inclusive in order to lead an organization of this kind.”

Davis was born and grew up in Oklahoma City. As an undergraduate student at Langston – where she had full academic scholarships – she had strong mentors, particularly in academic advisor John Coleman and Alonzo Peterson, dean of the School of Arts and Science. She graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry in May 2015. She was awarded a Bridge to the Doctorate Fellowship by the National Science Foundation through the LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation) Program and headed to UTA.

“The best part of my undergraduate program was the exposure to research opportunities,” she said. “As an LSAMP scholar, we were heavily encouraged to seek summer research opportunities in order to gain research experience and to prepare students in our program for graduate school. My mentors, Dr. Coleman and Dr. Peterson, helped me seek these opportunities that ultimately inspired me to pursue higher education.

“Transitioning from a smaller, historically black university to UTA was an adjustment. I really enjoyed the diverse and friendly atmosphere upon arriving on campus.”

At UTA, she joined Johnson-Winters’ lab, where her work has implications in health-related research that utilizes chemistry techniques, something she became interested in while at Langston. Her research currently focuses on an enzyme named F420-dependent glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (FGD), which has been found to be important in the existence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the causative bacteria of TB disease.

“In order to understand the mechanistic details for FGD, we utilize spectrophotometric methods, such as stopped-flow spectroscopy and UV-Vis spectroscopy,” she said. “FGD is targeted as a therapeutic agent and remains of interest because it produces a molecule (reduced F420 cofactor) that activates anti-TB drugs to eliminate multiple-drug resistant and extreme drug resistant forms of TB disease.”

Davis has won awards for her research, including first place in the graduate student poster division at the 2020 Midwest Enzyme Chemistry Conference; second place in the graduate student poster division at the College of Science BGSA Inaugural URM in STEM Conference in 2019; and first place in the oral presentation in biology division at the Beta Kappa Chi National Scientific Conference in 2013.

Three years ago, Davis added a new role to her life when she became a mother. Having a son and being a strong role model for him has been a joy but also a challenge when it comes to juggling her doctoral work with the demands of parenthood.

“I have learned to be creative with my time management,” she said. “While I am at school during the day, I prioritize my time so that I finish my lab work in time to pick up my son from preschool. My support system – family, fellow graduate students and my amazing advisor, Dr. Johnson-Winters – deserves much credit in my future success.”

Davis is grateful that she has had strong role models throughout her academic career. Asked what she would say to a young girl of color who enjoys science but is hesitant to pursue a STEM education, Davis’ answer is borne from personal experience.

“I would tell her that your journey will be hard,” she said. “The weapons will form, but they will not prosper. Connect yourself with people that can relate to you and will invest in you. Whenever you come across ‘No’, that simply means next option!”